The TUC hosted our first major online digital event, Organise 2020, on 9-11 July. It had originally been conceived as an offline organising summit for several hundred organisers and reps at Congress House in London. But when the lockdown came, it was pretty quickly obvious we’d need to develop a new approach, exclusively using online technology to organise, promote and host the event.
The three-day event, saw more than 3,000 attendances at 28 different sessions, ranging from small trainings and fringes happening in parallel to larger plenary sessions. We learned a lot in doing it, but here are four things that have been useful to us in particular.
1. “Doing it digital” doesn’t automatically mean there’s less work
Our core project team realised during the planning process that this would be quite a labour-intensive event to put together, despite it moving from a physical to a virtual event. There were fewer on-the-day person hours to stage the event (we didn’t need to staff a registration desk or provide catering) but using new technologies meant a lot more planning, training and tech support work, which was more front-loaded in the project.
Everyone in the team pitched in where necessary and often took on tasks that weren’t their usual areas of work. Doing this has built people’s technical knowledge around the TUC, which is a bonus for handling smaller events in house.
However, there’s a trade-off where this could have been done more quickly by people who already had the expertise. And having to live-test things we had only recently learned in the context of a major event caused a bit of anxiety that they’d go okay on the day.
For future projects, mapping out the specialist support needs and resourcing them earlier in the run-up will be important – if necessary using external technical assistance in the same way we would use AV or stage-building expertise for a physical event, rather than develop that in house.
2. Digital can help build diversity
At the TUC, we’re concerned to make our events as representative as our movement, and increasing diversity amongst our presenters is one part of that. At Organise 2020, we managed a good spread of speakers including good representation from women, BAME speakers and international speakers including from the global south. The variety of topics we could showcase expertise from proved a big factor in generating interest in the event.
When your event is virtual, it can make it easier to cast your net more widely in bringing in participants, rather than falling back on people from closer networks. It’s possible to bring in people who wouldn’t be able to justify making the trip to central London for a session with us. And that lets us access a wider range of people and perspectives.
There’s also a benefit for attendees. Our original plans for a 2-day physical event in London would have limited it to those who had the means and licence to attend – largely union staffers and reps on facility time. Holding it online meant that some sessions got a really good number of participants, which would probably not have happened at a physical event.
The convenience of accessing online sessions has also been a finding for our colleagues in TUC Education, who have seen greater uptake and diversity of attendees as their programme has gone exclusively online during lockdown.
Technology also offered us ways to increase the scope of participation by including language interpretation and BSL interpretation in our plenary events. As we were learning about running the event as we went, we didn’t realise the opportunity in speech-to-text providers integrated with Zoom until it was too late. That will definitely be something for us to consider in the future.
Making the recordings of sessions available online after the event (see the YouTube playlist here) will also be useful in taking them to a wider audience who couldn’t attend live.
3. Digital can help in the project planning process too
Organise 2020 was a good example of cross-departmental working, something the TUC has identified as a priority for our organisation more widely. The project team used video conferencing for the planning meetings, with jobs allocated and records kept in shared documents and spreadsheets, which everyone committed to editing their own parts of.
This meant colleagues had a sense of what each other were doing between meetings, and we could easily check progress and identify new areas that needed work.
As the event neared, we held more regular catch up meetings to check progress and identify support needs. Moving them from Skype for Business (our preferred telephony platform at the TUC) to Zoom also helped us gain familiarity in the system we would be using on the day.
Training for meeting hosts and co-hosts on Zoom delivered by members of the core project team provided staff with invaluable support with running sessions. The sheer number of sessions with different specialist topics, and the fact that many of them ran in parallel, meant we needed a lot of hosts and co-hosts, and this had a big training implication.
We shared a number of Zoom accounts in order to keep costs down (webinar pricing for multiple accounts can add up quickly) and we used shared calendars to book time on them for practice sessions with our guest speakers.
Time in practice was really well spent and meant we could be much better prepared on the day, with a panel who had already seen each other and had a chance to discuss the format and focus on their session.
4. Signing attendees up is only half the battle
Our project team also collaborated on a promotional strategy for the event. We had two objectives – to get as many people aware of the event as possible and signed up to attend, and to make sure as many as we could of those registrations actually turned up on the day.
With a virtual event, the barriers to participation are lower, but so are the barriers to dropping out. If you don’t have a train ticket booked or an expensive entry credential, you aren’t so vested in actually attending. There’s also not the social pressure you’d feel in dropping out of a physical meeting where you might be noticed. Signing up for Zoom events in advance is easy, but when you’re busy on the day, there’s a conflict you wouldn’t necessarily consider for a physical event, where you’d be away from your desk and unable to switch your focus away from the event.
So we decided to create a dedicated email list in Mailchimp for people as they signed up to attend, maintaining an email journey to those people to help keep their interest in the event front of mind. Most of our promotion was aimed at getting people onto that general list for the event.
Our best channels for recruiting attendees to this new email list were our existing specialist interest email lists. But this meant there were nearly as many promotion audiences as there were sessions. Developing a set of narratives about the event (long and short promotional texts, and sample tweets) really helped gatekeepers for different TUC lists to create appropriate messaging to their contacts, whilst retaining consistency for the event.
But we kept our booking system at a session level rather than for the whole event. This meant we could benefit from our breadth of sessions, and people could attend just a couple that interested them, rather than staying for the whole thing or a longer block of sessions. It also meant that we could promote just the most relevant sessions where we had very specialist audiences.
Zoom handled automatic update emails to remind people of the link one hour before each session’s start. That worked in our favour in increasing our reach and our turnout for individual sessions, but may also have worked against us in that people felt less commitment to a big event.
Overall we were very happy with the turnout level, which tended to be around 70% of the pre-registration level across all events. This may have been more marked because of the decision to split the event into shorter specialist sessions. We also managed to get a majority staying through to the end in each session – though this was harder to measure authoritatively as whilst the total stayed 90% the same from start to finish, this included some people leaving earlier and others joining mid-way.
Our movement is based on personal relationships, and face to face physical events will always have a place for us. But they can exclude people for whom geography, costs or outside commitments make attendance difficult. Even when we return to physical events after the pandemic, keeping the lessons from lockdown’s focus on online participation will be important for us to retain.
And we learned a lot from trying this event that will be reusable as we try future large events, such as the upcoming Congress 2020, which will be mostly virtual for the first time. You can follow how that goes and take part yourself by signing up here.
Tanya Warlock was the TUC project manager for the Organise 2020 event.